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Why Antagonistic People Are So Unwilling to Change

... and how loved ones can help budge them.

Key points

  • The average person would undoubtedly prefer to be liked by other people, so why do antagonistic people not want to change?
  • New personality research shows what leads those with antagonistic traits to see the benefits as outweighing the costs.
  • Despite their reluctance to becoming nicer, there may be a way to encourage antagonistic people to break out of their mold.

If you had a choice of which personality traits to have, chances are you’d pick the ones that can make you more successful, likable, and pleased with your life. After all, when others think you are “nice” or “dependable,” they’ll be more likely to want to be with you, right?

According to the University of Georgia’s Chelsea Sleep and colleagues (2022), these so-called “good” traits are linked to a wide range of outcomes that reflect success in the various domains of school, work, relationships, parenting, physical and mental health, and even longevity. On the flip side, people who fall into the unfavorable end of the personality continuum are known to experience a number of maladaptive outcomes, including substance use, aggressiveness, and antisocial behavior.

Given these alternatives, you might think that people whose personality isn’t naturally all that adaptive would do everything they could to find ways to change. Indeed, there is growing evidence that intentional personality change is possible across life, as people find ways to ditch some of their undesirable attributes in favor of ones that help them achieve their goals. However, as Sleep et al. note, “it remains unclear why many individuals exhibit relatively little change in their problematic traits… [such as] antagonism."

What Are Some of the Obstacles to Personality Change?

There are 3 conditions, the U. Georgia researchers suggest, that keep antagonistic people stuck in their personality rut. First, they may not want to change, even though they know that their personalities are getting them in trouble. Second, they may regard it as impossible to engage in new behaviors even though this could help turn the tide of their lives in a more positive direction. Lacking both the motivation to change and the belief that they can, these individuals encounter the third obstacle to change, being unable to experience the new ways of behaving that could ultimately counteract their beliefs that change is neither desirable nor possible.

Think about someone you know who you would rate as high in antagonism. They always take the opposite point of view from everyone else, say things that are just plain mean, and refuse to cooperate in any type of joint venture. You might be working on a project together, and this person does nothing but criticize and challenge all options as they’re put on the table. As much as you try to find a way around this person’s obstinate refusal to accept some type of compromise, all you get in return are derogatory and even spiteful comments. Eventually, you just stop asking for this person’s help and proceed with your plans anyway.

When you eventually get past your annoyance, you might start to wonder what’s going on in the mind of this contrarian person. Don’t they see just how counterproductive it is to always be fighting the will of the majority? Can they not overcome those 3 obstacles to make an effort to lower their level of antagonism? To gain insight into questions such as these, Sleep and her colleagues decided to probe directly into the perceived risks and benefits of becoming less antagonistic as gauged by people whose personality scores put them into the pathological range of this and related qualities.

Weighing Benefits vs. Barriers to Personality Change

From an online sample of 715 adults, of whom 686 passed the validity check tests in the questionnaires, the U. Georgia team identified 252 whose scores placed them in the pathological end of a 10-item personality disorder screening test. These participants then went on to rate themselves on a 1-100 scale assessing their actual and desired levels of 25 traits as described by the DSM-5’s five personality disorder domains. For each domain, participants rated how much each one created problems in their daily life, the benefits of changing, and their interest in changing by more than 10 points on the 1-100 scale.

Following this task, participants then went on to rate the following statements about their perceived motivation and barriers to change:

  1. I do not have the motivation to change
  2. I do not know how to change
  3. I do not think I am able to change
  4. Change will be too difficult
  5. I have tried to change, but failed

Finally, in an attempt to hear from participants in their own words, the research team asked them to answer several open-ended questions in which they could describe the problems their personality has caused them, the benefits it has provided, and the biggest reason they thought change would be difficult.

Looking first at the DSM-5 domains, change was seen as most desirable for these participants in the area of negative affectivity, meaning they did want to be happier. However, only 15% of the sample actually said they wanted to be less antagonistic. What’s more, 23% of the sample wished they could be even more antagonistic. Despite seeing this trait as causing potential impairment in their daily lives, they clearly found antagonism to have its benefits.

The open-ended data let the authors pinpoint these perceived benefits, which included (in the minds of participants) better health and occupational outcomes, a stronger social presence, an ability to advocate for the self, a lack of guilt, and greater interpersonal control. They didn't mind that their antagonism made them seem arrogant. One stated that “I am able to observe much more than others due to my mindset," and another that "I work in a highly competitive environment where being aggressive/thinking highly of yourself is integral to getting ahead and pushing the envelope. Being willing to agitate or grandstand often results in promotions or new accounts obtained."

Clearly, as in the earlier example, antagonistic people like taking the opposite set of views to everyone else because they think it reaps rewards. As Sleep et al. also point out, they may also enjoy feeling powerful and in control. Their self-confidence gets a boost because they receive plenty of reinforcement in the form of attention.

Can You Ever Get the Antagonistic Person to Change?

It may seem from these findings that all hope is lost when it comes to smoothing out the rough edges of the antagonistic individual. However, Sleep and her fellow authors believe there can be hope, even for individuals whose antagonism reaches clinical levels.

Recognizing how much antagonistic people value control and attention, don't let their constant criticism intimidate you into trying to please them. When they do behave in more cooperative ways, be ready to provide them with reinforcement, so they come to learn that there are better ways to get attention than their constant nay-saying. They may even surprise themselves when they realize how good it feels to be nicer, especially if it gives them the same, or better, results than did their previous abrasiveness.

To sum up, if personality change is indeed a matter of weighing costs vs. benefits, it would seem that everyone could be helped by learning how to look objectively at both. The highly antagonistic may prefer to stay that way, but for their own fulfillment and that of those who interact with them, it may just be a matter of learning a new way to settle the balance sheet.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: guruXOX/Shutterstock

References

Sleep, C. E., Lynam, D. R., & Miller, J. D. (2022). Understanding individuals’ desire for change, perceptions of impairment, benefits, and barriers of change for pathological personality traits. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 13(3), 245–253.

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